Thursday, December 28, 2023

The Marriage Rehearsal

In early December, a University of Metropolitan Toronto (nee Ryerson) journalism student pointed me toward a website that -- surprise surprise--held a lot of material published before the whole world went online.  

One of my favourite finds: This story I wrote for Chatelaine, about Kiran Pal and Geoff Pross, who travelled the world and got married in eight different cultural traditions. 


The taxi ride between my house and Lester B. Pearson International Airport is about 15 minutes on a good day and on this particular Friday morning, traffic was light and the sky clear. So, for a quarter of an hour - and because I asked - I was treated to the story of a marriage as lived by one chatty Ethiopian cabbie.


He had arrived in Canada a dozen years ago. Here, he met and fell in love with a woman, but his parents wanted him to follow his two older brothers and have a traditional arranged marriage. He ignored them, listened to his heart and married for love. Now, he and his wife have one little boy who needs extra help at school and Dad drives a cab about 60 hours a week to make ends meet. Life, he said as I was exiting his taxi, is hard. "You know," he said, "after all these years, I realize something. My father was right. I should have gone for the arranged marriage." It seems that no matter where you go, marriage is complicated.


 If I'd told the driver why I was catching a plane, he probably would have wanted to join me. I was flying to Whistler, B.C., to meet Kiran Pal and Geoff Pross, two self-styled marriage experts. Their claim to fame: Kiran, 30, and Geoff, 31, had been married eight times in traditional ceremonies around the world. Eight times. To each other.


By the time you read this, they will have had a ninth wedding, scheduled for mid-July, in British Columbia Kiran and Geoff had been a couple for eight years since graduating from university. Then, in the fall of 2000, they decided to get married - but not until they thoroughly researched the roots of the institution. In the hope of learning as much about weddings - and each other - as they could, they took all their savings, left their Vancouver home and and pursued this eccentric year-long project.


The pair moved to eight different countries - sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few months - made friends and shared their plans with the locals. They would ask about traditional wedding ceremonies, find someone to perform the rituals and then hire people to throw the parties. The price tag on this elaborate 12-month wedding? "The price of a new SUV," Geoff told me. "A really fancy SUV," Kiran added.


Their first ceremony was an Aboriginal affair in South Australia. There, they became honorary members of a tribe, adopted honorary godparents and sat around a fire while an elder wielded a flaming stick and told the newlyweds about their obligations.


The sixth wedding was a Celtic celebration in County Leitrim, Ireland. For that one, Kiran and Geoff got bound to each other at the wrist. It's called a handfasting, and the couple is supposed to consummate the marriage tied up. (Each ceremony holds its unique appeal.)


At the Thai marriage, a pair of elders - spry ones, I might suppose - did the traditional job of warming up the marriage bed before the newlyweds hopped into it. (If experience is any teacher - I've got 16 years of matrimony under my belt - I bet the older married folks just read a bit, gave each other a peck on the cheek and nodded off.)


Kiran and Geoff exchanged vows in a Shinto ceremony in Japan, watched a pig get slaughtered in Borneo and drank litre after litre of some horrid drink called Kill Me Quick in Africa. I went to meet them not so much to hear details of their trips (I can wait until the book that they're writing comes out) but because I hoped they might answer a couple of simple questions.


First, what is up with marriage? Statistics show that most North American couples live together before they tie the knot, and even though some figures indicate a 42 per cent divorce rate in this country, we never seem to give up. The wedding business is hotter than ever.  Is it like this in the rest of the world, too? I once heard that the phrase "Till death do us part" was invented when a person's lifespan   averaged 34 years.


My question: are all cultures into this long-term business or are people who shill for the deathdo-us-part thing out of their minds? Some days, you have to wonder.


The second question I had was about wedding ceremonies themselves. Are they worth it? Anybody who's been involved in planning a wedding knows how stressful it can be, that you sometimes have to tread the steps from engagement announcement to marriage vows as gingerly as if they were littered with landmines.


One group of relatives wants a big to-do, the other kind of hopes the couple elopes. The groom would like to invite his university pals, but the bride knows they're nothing but a bunch of hard-drinking all-night-partying boors. I remember more about planning my wedding than I do about planning my career. I recall debating what kind of cutlery we would use at our reception but I don't ever remember talking about whether we'd raise the kids Catholic.


 It strikes me as pretty weird. When you think about it, weddings are but one small part of marriage. Just like giving birth is one of the tiniest parts of raising a child. So, there's really no point knotting ourselves up over the details, right? Wrong. There must be something to this long-term marriage thing because everybody's into it. Kiran and Geoff discovered people everywhere have similar attitudes toward getting hitched.


For example, here's what they were told when they got married in Australia: "With the Adnyamathanha people, if you break up you have to come back to where the marriage took place, find the burning sticks and throw them in opposite directions. And then you're not to see each other ever again and you cannot enter the community as a couple."


Only the Celtic handfasting ceremony offered any chance of dissolution. The others were for life. And that answered my first question.


As for No. 2, I realized, after meeting Kiran and Geoff, that the wedding and everything that leads up to it is a preview - or a trailer as it's known in the movie biz - for the epic thriller called Married Life.


"The funny thing is," Kiran says, "we went on this journey because we wanted to get away from people fussing over little things, like brides freaking out when their bouquets don't arrive on time. But what we found were people interfering and fussing wherever we went."


And let's face it: the way you handle the interfering and fussing prepares you for life together. "They say travelling is living life in a hurry," says Geoff. "And we had all these experiences in a short period of time - and we had our differences. Kiran would want to do it one way, I'd want to do it another. We had to shelve our differences, so we learned how to get past hurdles together."


Case in point: what's the most important word in the married person's lexicon? Compromise. A couple who gives in to each other once in a while stays together. And what teaches this better than hosting a wedding where you have to entertain 150 guests who include, for example, the bride's estranged stepfather, the groom's salacious brother-inlaw and a few people both families deny even knowing?


If a couple doesn't compromise when it comes time to getting married, they're doomed. Did Kiran and Geoff compromise? You're darn right they did.


At their very first wedding, among the Australian Adnyamathanha, they had to eat kangaroo meat. Kiran and Geoff are both vegetarians. "Yeah, we agreed," says Kiran. "But at least it hadn't been domesticated." A pretty tiny compromise, you might think. But eating things you hadn't planned on - especially your words - is a huge part of staying married.


What about the generations-old marriage-saver called living in denial? Of course, marriage is based on love, acceptance, trust and forbearance, but sometimes indifference and ignoring things that just don't make sense go a long way to getting you through the day. Weddings are perfect practice for this.


Everywhere. When Kiran and Geoff were getting married in the Iban tradition in Borneo, they had to pick little candies off a banana tree. Only after they did this were they informed that the bananas symbolize shrunken enemy heads. "An Iban warrior," Geoff says, "had to take at least one head before being allowed to marry."


We all adhere to traditions we ignore the meaning of. According to statistics, 96 per cent of Canadian brides get married in a virginal white or ivory gown. As if.


Weddings also groom you for the little surprises that life never stops springing on you. Back in Borneo, Kiran and Geoff were dressed up - he in a loin-cloth and she in a beaded shimmering dress - and they put on a feast for more than 100 people. And just like at my wedding, one trusted guest was responsible for videotaping the affair. At my wedding, my brother Alex was in charge of the camera and it became clear that he enjoyed our Polish dance band because during our ensemble's version of "I Just Called to Say I Love You," the camera starts polka-ing.


That scene adds a grace note to the cherished video record of our special day. "In Borneo," Geoff says, "the camera guy should have been zooming in on Kiran's sparkling new headdress - a silver tinkling thing with beads on it - and then you hear the squealing of the pig being slaughtered. So, guess what got videotaped? You guessed it - the pig intestines." In life, as in wedding ceremonies, sometimes you get the tiara and sometimes you get the intestines.


Weddings also make a couple say "I do" several times. That can't be a bad thing. Kiran maintains that their yearlong journey from wedding to wedding forced them to reiterate and demonstrate their love for each other on innumerable occasions. At least eight times they professed their undying devotion. "There's never too much reassuring the other person how much you love them," she says.


Their various weddings shared other characteristics. In Australia, the couple not only marries each other; in the Aboriginal tradition, once they marry into another family, they are responsible for the members of that other family. I, as well as anyone who's had a brother-in-law move in with them "until he gets a place," will agree that there isn't one society on the planet where you don't marry all the members of a family. It goes on. During the Iban ceremony in Borneo, Geoff had to do a warrior dance.


He recalls it this way: "I did my best, and the shrieks of laughter started up immediately." Like I said, I've been married 16 years. I have three children. I know from getting laughed at.


Finally, every ceremony that Kiran and Geoff found themselves involved in invoked unseen forces. Wherever they went, weddings were spiritual events. Kiran again: "We had to believe we were spiritually connected to the land in the Aboriginal ceremony. In the Shinto ceremony, God was called to witness the event. It was like that wherever we went."


I recently read that almost 75 per cent of Canadians who have traditional weddings include religion as part of the ceremony. And if nothing else preps you for life,  that does. Because God knows, sometimes it's pure faith that gets married people through their daily lives.


Still, with all of Kiran and Geoff's experiences and rituals, I thought there was something missing. So, I'd like to add one detail - maybe a moment of silence or a boring rest period during which nothing happens - to every wedding reception, wherever it takes place. Because you might as well rehearse for marriage's best part, too.

En route to Whistler, I spent a night in an inexpensive hotel near the airport. This place had walls so thin I could hear exactly what was going on in the next room. I'm not exaggerating. My neighbours were named John and, from what I could gather through the wall, Emmy.


I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but no sooner had I flopped down on my bed than I heard laughter coming through the flowery wall-paper. And I'm not talking faint giggles, either. I could make out each tee and every hee as well as everything in-between. Their mattress squeaked. While I don't know for certain that John and Emmy were a married couple, it sure sounded like it.


Because from what I could tell, Emmy was in bed reading the paper and eating chips and John was in bed beside her watching the game. He was also having a few beers.


Which, apparently, he didn't do very often, because Emmy sweetly chided him. It was OK, though, because "This," she reasured him, "is a special occasion." Then after a half-hour or so, I heard the newspaper rustle. She said, "I'm going to sleep. G'nite, dear. Don't forget to turn out the light." "G'nite," said John. Then there was silence, except for the sounds of two people getting comfy enough to nod off in peace.


Ask any longtime married person, including my Ethiopian taxi driver - the one who works 60 hours a week and really needs a break. I'm sure he'd agree with me. It just doesn't get any better than that.

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